About this work
Penderecki wrote this monumental work just eight years after completing his formal composition studies. One of his first major works, it quickly earned Penderecki recognition as an important young composer. The full title of the work is "The Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Luke." It is scored for huge forces: solo soprano, baritone, bass, and speaker; three mixed choruses; a boys' choir; full orchestra without oboe or clarinet but including saxophones; full percussion including tympani, bass drums, tom-toms, rattles, bongos, bells, Chinese and Javanese gongs, vibraphone, harp, piano, organ, and harmonium. The text is a setting of St. Luke's account of the Passion, and also includes some psalms, Latin hymns, and other liturgical texts. Penderecki's Passion is part of the grand tradition of the Passion exemplified by J.S. Bach. Bach's St. John and St. Matthew Passions stand among the greatest pieces of religious music in the history of Western civilization, and Penderecki's Passion certainly bears the marks of Bach's influence.
The St. Luke Passion's most obvious Bach-inspired features are its two-part structure and its alternation of narrated action with sung reflection. While musically there is little in Penderecki's Passion that directly draws on Bach's Baroque counterpoint, Penderecki does invoke at least the presence of the older composer through the use of the four note motive B-A-C-H ("b" is b flat and "h" is b natural in the German musical alphabet). There are, of course, also a number of significant differences between the Passions of Bach and the St. Luke Passion, especially in terms of language and scope: Penderecki's Passion is in Latin and is half as long as Bach's Passions, which set Luther's German and German Baroque religious poetry.
In Penderecki's Passion the narrative action is moved along by a speaker, who is set against an orchestral backdrop. Soloists sing the essential dramatic roles, Christ, Pilate, Peter, and the Maiden. The choirs are employed, typically, to represent crowds, but a large choral introduction and finale also serve to frame the work. Musically, the St. Luke Passion is a mélange of several different elements. Borrowings from Penderecki's own Stabat Mater of 1962 are audible, as are Gregorian chant-like fragments and manipulations of the B-A-C-H motive. Penderecki also employs 12-tone rows in the manner of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. There is no real sense of an overarching tonal harmonic system at work in the Passion, despite the occasional tonal moment. Instead, Penderecki selects individual notes as tonal centers, surrounding them with melodic fragments, chord clusters, and dense textures bordering on pure noise.
The St. Luke Passion is an important work in the history of music in the twentieth century, as it brings together and seemingly solves a number of stylistic problems, including the integration of tonal and non-tonal harmony and the blending of religious themes with modern soundscapes.